Thursday, January 24, 2013

Give Stories Added Depth With a ‘Ghost Plot’

Our most effective stories are often those which achieve the illusion of hidden ‘depth’. The reader glimpses a world, multi-dimensional, behind the story. So the tale appears real.

We can conjure this effect of smoke and mirrors in many ways. Perhaps we set the tale, wholly fictional, in a real location and cram it with authentic detail. In Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories - set in Oxford, England - the reader can sit on the actual chair at the Turf Tavern where the characters - and Morse himself - once sat. The chair is real. So the story must be too...

Or we interweave the story with genuine events, as witness Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.

Or we present our story, wickedly, as non-fiction. Paul Kavanagh’s thriller Such Men Are Dangerous was accepted by many readers as the dramatised autobiography of a real CIA agent, until it was exposed as a publisher’s hoax. Defoe’s chilling A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was widely believed at the time to be an eye-witness account but is entirely fictional.

Or we can hint at a back story or prequel to the tale. The characters appear to have some independent existence in an alternative world that persists outside the story. In Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels, we continually bump against allusions, only half explained, to her complex past. Conclusion: this lady is four-dimensional. She’s real.

Alternatively, we can create a ‘ghost plot’.

Image courtesy of
A ghost plot is a thread that unfolds behind the principal narrative, like any other sub-plot. But it may have nothing to do with the main story. It’s something that exists solely to give an illusion of dimension to the narrative. How can you create a ghost plot?

Draft two narrative threads - a main plot and a sub-plot. They have their own characters and settings. Optionally, they might be set in different time periods. Give each a complementary theme. And interweave those stories so that each one acts as an ironic chorus or commentary on the other. For example:

Main story: A modern couple are planning a grand church wedding. Crisis succeeds crisis. The bride’s mother interferes so much that it seems the marriage will never take place.

Ghost plot: Flash back to the 18th century. The celebrated clock maker Joseph Knibb is trying to finish an expensive time-piece commissioned by an absent-minded lord. Every week, the lord bustles in and changes the design. Knibb pulls his hair in despair. Finally, he brings out the design he suggested at the start, which his patron had dismissed.

Now the lord loves it. What a brilliant new concept, he says. So original! Knibb is a genius...

Switch back to the main plot: The bride puts her foot down. They’ll hold their wedding in a supermarket, she says. The mother beams. What a brilliant new concept! So original! Her child is a genius...

The two plots echo each other, yet they are wholly unrelated except by theme.

Should we link those plots in the final episode? Could we have the bridegroom give his bride a wedding gift - a family heirloom which turns out to be the fabled clock of Joseph Knibb? That would tie the threads together in a neat ironic close.

But it’s not necessary.

The reader will still detect the resonance of themes in the two self-contained stories and, if they’re well told, will smile at the timeless perversity of human nature. Whether or not the plots are linked, the story has acquired depth.

In summary, an unusual way to make your tale appear multi-dimensional is to run a separate story - a ghost plot - behind the main narrative. It’s immaterial whether the stories are linked in any direct or causal way. The ghost plot exists primarily to create an illusion of depth, the irrational sense that we are glimpsing a world that exists by itself, outside of the story space.

It’s autonomous and real.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:


  1. Great post, John, packed with inspiring plot architectures.

    In the novel Chipset, a parallel story revealed in a packet of letters presents the previously unknown background of the protagonist's parents. The WWII story-within-a-story connects with the contemporary foreground plot through the protagonist and closes some holes left deliberately open at the outset of The Homeland Connection series.

    Is this a "ghost plot" by your definition? Maybe not, but the intentions are certainly similar: to enrich the third dimension of the story and characters.

  2. Great post. I've also enjoyed your "How to Win Writing Contests for Profit" and recommended it to others.

  3. Thank you for this post. The idea of the "ghost plot" is wonderful. I'm currently revising my new novel (according to guidelines just received from a consultant editor) & will consider how I might apply this in the story. SC Skillman, Author, Mystical Circles (romantic suspense)

  4. Christopher, you always make me smile. I'm not sure we all have big brains, maybe just years of experience. And Dr. John does have an extensive education in creative writing. That helps. (smile)I learned so much from taking a course in creative writing many moons ago. Those professors seem to know so much. (smile)

  5. Oh, you literary geniuses! I'm kind of with Christopher here. I'm not sure I'd accept two stories that never connected other than by theme--since I'm a clunk-head when it comes to seeing themes. I've had readers point out themes in my books that I never knew were there. But a very interesting post, and certainly something to think about.
    On the flip side is Lee Child. If he puts anything on the page, you know it's going to come back and probably be important to the plot, so you keep reading, waiting for it.

    Terry's Place

  6. Thanks for the flattery, Maryann. (My wife might disagree that 'I know so much'. Just this morning, I mislaid my spectacles and found them on my nose :))

    I concede Terry's point, that two entirely unrelated stories might baffle the reader. However, if they're clearly linked by theme their mutual resonance should create a whole that's greater than the parts.

    A posh term for that is 'frame reverberation'. Hm... I feel another post coming on.

  7. In my earlier years as an editor, I read an almost-finished novel that had an incredible ghost plot. The talented writer had tied the stories together by theme, and the historical piece, in particular, was one of the best pieces I ever read. Unfortunately, another editor or an agent or somebody "in the know" told him it would never sell, and he separated the stories. I'm still trying to get him to put them back together. I'm hoping he will.

  8. Clever idea! I'll have to try it sometime!

    Morgan Mandel

  9. I've inadvertently done this with all of my longer works so far; I'm stoked to see it is a genuine technique. The second novel I wrote (after the training novel) had two seemingly-parallel stories alternating chapters, which converged at the end through both protagonists' roles in a theft.

  10. Very interesting post. I have never considered using this techniques before (despite one of my favourite books, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, using it to the extreme), but now I am itching to give it a go.

  11. Ooh, John, you've left my creative frame reverberating already! What a meaty post, worthy of way more than a breezy read. This is a pretty literary technique, to be sure, unlikely to be tolerated in many genres.

    It brings to mind a book I read back in my high school years in which there were two intertwining stories, completely separate, and the book ended with the two protagonists meeting for the first time and shaking hands. That's it—we have no idea what they will mean to each other.

    Does anyone know this story? I don't recall enough to look it up. Perhaps Vonnegut?

  12. Oh, Kathryn. Please don't reverberate! It makes it quite impossible to sew on buttons, I've found. (My wife disdains this task. 'I married you for better or for worse,' she says. 'But not for sewing on buttons.')

  13. A ghost plot? Never thought of it. It seems like a feature which would draw the reader into the story. Perhaps it could serve to accentuate the main plot?

    Thank you.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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